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Friday, November 1, 2013

New Software Meeting New Technology Needs   

As next generation rotorcraft become ever more sophisticated, the software industry is rising to meet the maintenance challenge.

By Douglas Nelms

Photos courtesy of Eurocopter
It still takes a good mechanic with the right set of tools on the maintenance floor to get a helicopter out of the hangar and back in the air, regardless of how sophisticated the aircraft’s technology is. However, the way he or she approaches the repair is being dramatically changed by the introduction of increasingly sophisticated information technology – or commonly known as IT.

Specifically, it is the growing importance of IT software being designed to make aviation maintenance more efficient, cost effective and error free… while meeting the challenge of advancing technology. Key to that development is a rapidly improving seamless aircraft operations and maintenance process.

“In the future, aviation maintenance software should promote seamless, integrated flow of information among OEMs, regulatory agencies, operators and maintenance provides, a virtual single system,” said Jack Demeis, president of Continuum Applied Technology. “Standardization of information – in format, as well as content – will have critical impact on efficiency, safety, cost of ownership and aircraft uptime.”

The need to incorporate maintenance operations into the virtual single system is what is now driving software companies to develop programs that provide seamless maintenance operations—from routine maintenance and squawk reporting to return to service and final invoicing, he said.

“The problem today is that there are disparate, duplicate sources of data and disconnected systems. This produces inefficiency, errors and expense.”

Through its program called CORRIDOR, Continuum Applied Technology is taking those packages of data, using 25 modules broken up by traditional responsibilities within the support organization, then taking a holistic approach to develop a fully integrated real time system linking everything together, he said. “The unique thing is how information flows between these informational areas within the maintenance organization and to other third-party systems.”

For instance, a part requisition gets routed to the appropriate person in procurement, while simultaneously and automatically being routed to the appropriate folks for technical and/or regulatory approvals. “While all this is going on, the entire process is being communicated to the appropriate technicians responsible for making the repair on the helicopter so they don’t have to be constantly checking to see what the status of the parts is.”

Ramco CEO Virender
Aggarwal.
The company is releasing Version 11 of CORRIDOR, which includes additional modules such as planning and scheduling, tool crib and calibration management that ensures the right tools are available and accurately calibrated for the job. It also includes personnel training management to ensure that the mechanics doing the repairs have both the qualifications and certifications to do the repairs.

CORRIDOR tracks the job through to the very end, Demeis added. “Once the job is done, a single button push creates an invoice for the customer. Everything involving the job – accounting, invoicing and regulatory – is done automatically. It’s a seamless operation.”

The OEMs have already started working toward making seamless maintenance support a part of their customer support programs. Last December, Eurocopter added an eTech capability to its Keycopter support program, allowing operators to simply download maintenance publications onto an iPad or jump drive, according to Ericka Wright, American Eurocopter’s e-Commerce business manager.

“Previously we just had the IPC (inter-process communication—the method of exchanging data among shared memory) available (on Keycopter). The eTech system is web-based, so the customer just logs into the URL, then logs into Keycopter where all of their publications are stored on the server. They can access it from anywhere in the world that has Internet access.”

Eurocopter started with one model in December, but has now added all of its models to the eTech capability.

American Eurocopter’s distribution center at Dallas-Fort
Worth Airport (DFW). Operators are able to order parts
online through the Keycopter system and the parts are
packaged and ready for shipping in less than four hours.
Keycopter is American Eurocopter’s E-Commerce customer service portal. Along with allowing a customer to manage his account activities with Eurocopter, it allows the ability to order parts and spares, find alternate part information, check technical publications and carry out repair and overhaul tracking.

Eurocopter has also signed an agreement with Ramco Aviation to serve as the maintenance tracking tool, Wright said. With the Ramco system, every helicopter in the fleet will have its data captured and stored in a data base, allowing operators to track trends and problems in the aircraft, “which will be a huge safety benefit,” she said.

The Keycopter program is also used for spares management, with over 80 percent of spares now ordered through that system…up from only 30 percent three years ago, she said. “When a part is ordered from the spares warehouse at DFW, it can be taken down, given an air waybill number and out the door in four hours.”

Ramco CEO Virender Aggarwal said that maintenance providers “want to offer one-stop shopping to their customers. They are looking for software which can address much more to the fleet… to meet the needs of operators of small and medium helicopter clients.”

He noted that software must be developed to “deal squarely with constant changes in configuration, differing maintenance philosophies and increased maintenance activities to adapt to the differing mission types.” It also needs to be able to control the key aspects of the maintenance business, to include the supply chain, technical documents, costs and licenses – all in a single system.

The Ramco system is cloud-based, “which makes it user friendly for small and large operators,” said P.R. Vendetrama Raja, RAMCO’s vice chairman and managing director.

With tens of thousands of parts in an aircraft, tracking and managing each stage of maintenance work would become unmanageable without a user friendly and comprehensive M&E/MRO solution, he said. “The Ramco-Eurocopter cloud-based MRO software addresses the unique needs of smaller operators, MROs and CAMOs, which until now had to either run on disparate point solutions or operate manually using paper/excel to track maintenance and manage safety and regulatory compliance.”

As more operators buy into a cloud-based environment, cloud is rapidly becoming a method of choice for funneling information from data centers to the user. It is a method in which users can access the data they need from remote servers via the Internet rather than having to be connected to a local server. They simply lease the service from third-party providers, which gives them not only access to the data they need for repairs or upgrades, but also provides a fixed cost that can be programmed into the overall cost of their maintenance program.

Obviously, Eurocopter is not the only OEM offering improved software packages for maintenance support of its family of helicopters. Sikorsky uses the HELOTRAC 2X software system, “a web-based program that records, manages and reports essential information for enhanced fleet management operations,” said Lawrence Varholak, chief engineer and director of analytics, technology and engineering for Sikorsky Aerospace Services (SAS), the support arm for Sikorsky Aircraft. This is a “sophisticated, yet low cost maintenance tool” that eliminates the need for downloads or software installations, providing “easily and quickly access (to customers’) fleet information anytime, anywhere,” he added.

It offers instant links to Sikorsky service bulletins and FAA airworthiness directives, as well providing scheduled and unscheduled maintenance tracking. “It also monitors and reports Maintenance Due Projections, History Log and Archival system (while) offering direct interface to interactive Electronic Technical Manuals,” he noted.

HELOTRAC 2X can be integrated directly into those Sikorsky helicopters equipped with health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS) “providing real-time aircraft status,” Varholak said.

He noted that a “new and improved Oracle software platform” is being developed for the S-76D “that will further enhance its capabilities.”

New software is also being developed for program-specific maintenance. StandardAero recently released its PowerCheck 4.9 engine monitoring package that computerizes engine power checks for all airframes using the Rolls-Royce M250 turbine engine.

Previously, maintenance engineers would take engine readings such as N1, N2, and torque based on an aircraft flown at specific parameters such as outside air temperature, pressure altitude, density altitude, barometric pressure, etc., and line the figures up in the aircraft manual charts using pen and ruler to compute power efficiency of the engine.

With PowerCheck 4.9, the figures are simply put into the computer program to generate the power margins remaining within the engine.

“This makes it easier for the operators, who now don’t have to work with the charts,” said Shannon Barylink, StandardAero performance engineer. “It also cuts down on possible errors, and allows the operator to save the data and look at trends over time. This allows him to see when he starts having degradation so he can work out a schedule for further maintenance. It also allows a power check after the maintenance is done so he can see the ‘before and after’ readings. It gives the operator a good overview and allows him to watch trends over his entire fleet.”

A new piece of hardware that is helping helicopter fleet maintenance is the LiveAero transmitter/receiver. OpenPort Aero was designed by Iridium Communications and built by and rebranded as LiveAero by LiveTV, a major provider of in-flight entertainment. It is distributed by Greenwich AeroGroup.

This provides a broadband wi-fi bi-directional signal to and from the helicopter with a guaranteed 134 kilobytes per second, with speeds up to 300 kbps with network optimization. More specifically, it can transmit under the rotors rather than through them, “so there is no loss going through the rotor,” said Mark Fisher, Greenwich director, MRO aviation programs. The system sends and receives from 66 satellites “that are constantly moving, so you are picking up the signal on the horizon to allow it to go under the rotors.”

Graphic showing how various elements interact
using Corridor.
Value of the new system is that it allows direct, real time aircraft HUMS information to be transmitted in-flight back to the operator’s maintenance facility. This means that if a helicopter is having any kind of trouble en route to an oil rig as much as 200 miles offshore, the aircraft’s HUMS will transmit the problem back to the maintenance facility, allowing the maintenance people to figure out what the problem is before the pilot even calls them. They can then have a maintenance helicopter en route to the rig to fix the problem even before the initial helicopter lands, he said. “Today, HUMS is already being transmitted over the Iridium network, but it transmits at 2.4 kbps. So they have to break it up into data packages and send out a package ever so often. What you can do with the 134 kbps, since you can actually compress it, is send a whole packet of data every so many seconds. You can send a megabyte in less than 60 seconds, so you can send all of the HUMS data at one time if needed.”

Along with being the worldwide distributor, Greenwich does all the testing, integration and STC certification requirements for the system. It is currently working on an STC for the AW139, “and looking at the Eurocopter Super Puma, and Sikorsky S76 and S92,” Fisher said. “We’re also looking at other (helicopters) that are on our roadmap, as well as working with multiple helicopter OEMs to provide LiveAero for future production deliveries.”

A major item currently impacting on helicopter avionics maintenance is ARINC 661. This is the standard by which avionics “black boxes” are basically made generic to allow LIUs (LAN interface units) between multiple systems, according to Matt Jackson, product manager for Presagis, a provider of commercial off-the-shelf software programs.

Although ARINC 661 has been around for about a decade, the introduction of the avionics standard “is starting to pick up quite quickly in the rotary wing industry because it gives airframe manufacturers the ability to make customizations to their customers very, very quickly without too much overhead for certification,” he said. “They can deliver a customized helicopter to the customer with minimized certification cost.”

ARINC 661 “defines how boxes talk to the rest of the avionics,” Jackson said. “So our tools allow [the user] to generate that software load to be compliant to ARINC 661, which then allows the companies to build these generic boxes.”

Since ARINC 661 provides for common boxes throughout the cockpit, it allows ground maintenance crews to switch out a box that has failed. In flight, a second box can take over because it has the same capacity, he said.

“With ARINC 661, people can have common units and share them. There are aircraft around now that have the same box in the rear of the cabin as in the front of the cabin. The ground crew can just switch them around if one fails.”

Presagis is now building the software tool “to allow our customers to prototype, build and deploy the actual glass cockpit. We generate the software that fits inside those boxes.”

Presagis also ensures that the code used to develop the software is correct to DO-178B standards, which provides the guidelines for developing aviation software that complies with accepted airworthiness requirements.

 

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